As what’s left of the fallen leaves crunch under feet, mornings are welcomed (or unwelcomed) by frost, and light snow begins to flurry into the forecasts, baseball is far from being on the forefront of people’s minds.
But this time of year remains extremely busy for those behind the scenes of the summertime game of balls and strikes — just ask Newtown’s Frank Rocca. He has been involved in administrative aspects of the game, locally, for the better part of two decades, and was recently named Babe Ruth Baseball state commissioner.
“We are more busy now than ever,” said Rocca, who is in the process of scheduling summer tournaments for Connecticut’s many rising baseball stars.
Rocca, during his two-year term, plans to continue to lead in the efforts to make the game a positive experience for up-and-coming ball players, something he’s done — sometimes at the angst of select parents but always for the betterment of the growth and development of the children, he believes — since he started coaching his own children back in 1985.
That’s right — he’s been involved with Newtown youth baseball in various roles for nearly 30 years.
It all started with his son Frankie’s first taste of organized ball in the Newtown Parks & Recreation Charlie Brown Baseball League in the mid-1980s. At the time, Rocca was a volunteer coach, and had no idea he’d be so heavily entrenched in the youth game this many years later — well after his second and third sons, Tony and Ted, followed in Frankie’s cleat steps and would go through the hometown programs, honing their swings and running the bases. (The 18 year old team Ted played for a decade ago was the last squad Rocca coached.)
Through the mid-90s, Rocca continued to coach, following his sons from level to level, and also took on the roles of equipment manager and division director for Newtown Little League. He was eventually named president of Newtown Little League, and also got onto the board for the Babe Ruth program after he was asked by parents to attend some meetings.
Board members, including Rocca, voted to combine Little League and Babe Ruth, abandoning Little League after the ’96 season. The reasons: Little League was too restrictive, Babe Ruth’s rules allowed for more playing opportunities, and the insurance was more affordable, and younger players were intimidated when they had to make the jump to a different program, Rocca says. Babe Ruth allowed for intertown and interleague play, he notes.
The youngest players used to play in what was called the Bambino League, and that is what we call the Cal Ripken League today. Rocca became president of Newtown Babe Ruth, and eventually assistant state commissioner (ten years ago), and got involved at the state level for Cal Ripken, serving as the district commissioner.
For many volunteer coaches, when the kids move on, they move on. Not for Rocca, a diehard Mets fan from Queens, N.Y., who admits he is such a big fan he even watches replays of his beloved team’s losses.
“Baseball’s in my blood,” says Rocca, who grew up playing the game for fun — even in the coldest months (he remembers being photographed, as a preteen, playing outside in February during the early 1960s and the picture appearing on the front page of the New York Daily News).
Rocca played baseball through high school and college at Norwalk State Technical College (now Norwalk Community College) and eventually moved with his wife, Margaret, to Newtown in 1978.
Admittedly an aggressive official who isn’t afraid to buck the trend if it means doing what he believes is best for the young players, Rocca has long been the off-the-field version of the base runner who blows through the third base coach’s stop sign or the slap-happy hitter who swings away despite the bunt being called for. In other words, he doesn’t necessarily do what others want, but proves sometimes going against what is initially called for, and being aggressive, can often produce results.
Since taking on the role of commissioner only weeks ago, he’s reorganized the state boards for Babe Ruth’s three divisions — the Babe Ruth division for older players, Cal Ripken for younger players, and girls’ softball — creating one statewide board comprising what he deems to be the most proactive members of each of the old boards. Connecticut Babe Ruth has taken on the slogan “United We Play,” Rocca proudly says. He’s gotten the website — CTBabeRuthBaseball.com — previously under construction, up and running.
He’s seen Newtown youth baseball participation more than double in numbers since first coming on board. There were 400 or 500 children swinging bats and fielding balls (while wearing jeans as a matter of fact) back in the 80s, and there are more than 1,000 children in Newtown’s program now.
At the time Rocca was president of the Little League program, the youngest athletes allowed to play were 8 years old, and he was responsible for adding divisions for 6- and 7-year-olds. The additional age groups not only afforded younger players an opportunity to step into the batter’s box, but also generated more revenue for Babe Ruth and, thus, the league came up with enough money to provide uniform pants for the younger players. Previously, only the oldest participants had full uniforms.
“The kids were ecstatic that they actually had baseball pants instead of blue jeans,” Rocca said.
Another change Rocca spearheaded was the breakup of age-range divisions so that players now play with peers of the same age. It used to be that a select number of younger players could play up with children a year or two older. Some of the parents of those standout younger players liked that their children had a chance to be put up against better talent than they would otherwise face in their own age groups, Rocca said. He pushed hard for this change much to the dismay of some parents. The reasoning for the alteration, he says, was because the younger players were riding the bench and not getting a chance to develop their skills both on the field and in terms of taking on leadership roles as standouts among peers their age.
“It allows the talent to blossom within their respective age groups,” Rocca said. “There was a lot of resistance. We worked through it and it turned out to be a success as Newtown started to win state tournaments within two years.”
Not that winning is what it’s all about at this level, Rocca recognizes. He knows, however, that some athletes are better than others and, just last year, created the Xtreme Babe Ruth baseball team, a district squad for standout players, much like the already-in-place Xtreme softball team. The Xtreme baseball team — headed by District 4 Babe Ruth Commissioner Bob Alicea — gives Babe Ruth a way to retain advanced players, who otherwise would have had to play AAU, legion ball, or another such high-level outside league. Some players may opt to compete both on the new team and with their regular age-appropriate group, Rocca said. The key is keeping the players in the program. Rocca is the first to admit the Xtreme program has been a work in progress and that there has been a learning process. In the end, he’s confident it will be for the best for the local athletes.
“Frank has always been tremendous in supporting the kids and their activities,” said Bob Elias, who recently retired from Newtown’s Babe Ruth board after 18 years of involvement. “If 70 percent of parents want to do something one way and it’s not in the best interest of the kids he’ll do what’s best for the kids.”
Elias is quick to point out that a bulk of parents who attended meetings and spoke up, throughout the years, were those of the most talented players, skewing the votes of the collective wants of the parents. Elias says that Rocca’s approach is always to allow leadership skills to emerge and for development of young ball players.
There is always potential for politics to get in the way, notes Elias, adding that Rocca will ensure that doesn’t take place at the state level, just as he did at the local level for years. (None of the individuals on the state’s Babe Ruth board have children playing in the program, Rocca said.) “I think it’s great for Newtown Babe Ruth. I think it’s great for all the kids in the state,” Elias said.
“We rock the boat, but we get things done and it’s all for the kids,” Rocca said of he and the rest of the Babe Ruth board members.
Rocca, who can always be seen wearing his blue Babe Ruth cap, and welcomes people to stop and talk baseball with him any time they see him, wears multiple hats in the youth baseball world. He is the chairman of the New England Region for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund, a charity for Babe Ruth Baseball. Rocca runs tournaments and helps raise money for the Jimmy Fund. This year, the charity pulled in about $50,000. He’s been involved with the charity since 1999 and the 15th annual 14U Jimmy Fund Tournament will be held this year. He’s helped generate thousands of dollars — he estimates $20,000 throughout his tenure — for the town’s youth baseball program via various fundraisers.
So why at 59 years old (going on 60 in January), does Rocca — his three sons already long gone from the Newtown program — stay involved with the local game?
“I love baseball. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I love volunteer work — I love volunteering with the kids,” Rocca said.
Enough that in his anticipated yearlong hiatus following burnout from his regular work, Rocca chooses to take on a new role, with more responsibilities than he’s had before.
Rocca worked as a project manager doing construction management for airports in New York and New Jersey from 1983 until last year. He needed a break from the daily grind, but not from his unpaid gigs with youth baseball in the town and state. Rocca intends to get back into airport construction management again soon. For now, he’s got baseball management to keep him busy. Rocca says he spends two to three hours a day — on average — volunteering (really working) to make the game the best experience it can be for children who aren’t even his.
It’s not all baseball all the time for Rocca. He and his wife, who works at Reed School, have a granddaughter, Eloise (Tony and his wife Kelly’s child). Rocca’s family continues to grow — Ted is engaged to Kelsey.
The opportunities for local baseball players continue to grow under Rocca’s direction as well. Thanks, in part, to his efforts and involvement, Newtown hosted the 15-year-old New England Regional Babe Ruth Tournament this past summer. Rocca is striving to get a regional tourney — for one age group or another — here in town every year and he intends to make that a reality.
As state commissioner, Rocca oversees six district commissioners, lines up tournaments, and undertakes other scheduling duties. His role in the game on the area diamonds has changed throughout the years, but Rocca doesn’t miss where it all started, with coaching.
“I loved the coaching when I was a coach. My great enjoyment now is running tournaments,” he said of his evolving volunteer work. “It’s a great hobby — I love it.”
During last year’s regional tourney, Rocca made sure to encourage not just the hometown Newtown squad, but every team participating. He told players from throughout New England to “show me something,” attempting to motivate them, again and again.
After a squad from Cranston, R.I., went on to claim the regional championship, those team members had shirts made up with the words “Show Me Something” printed on them. The players signed one of the shirts and sent it to Rocca as a thank you for his efforts and support.
How long does Rocca plan to do the wintertime office work, all of the scheduling, and attending meetings that makes memorable moments like those possible?
“Forever,” he says. “As long as I can.”